Pompeo defends intelligence behind Soleimani strike amid press grilling

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday defended the decision to authorize a drone strike to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, saying intelligence suggested that he was plotting a “large-scale” attack that threatened U.S. embassies, among other American facilities.

Pressed by reporters at a press conference in the White House briefing room, Pompeo said that the Trump administration didn’t know precisely when or where the attack would occur, but insisted it was imminent.

“We had specific information on an imminent threat and the threat stream included attacks on U.S. embassies. Period, full stop,” Pompeo told reporters. 

Pompeo was grilled during the rare press briefing on the nature of the threat to Americans posed by Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike last Thursday.

Pompeo has previously said the Iranian general was preparing attacks that posed an “imminent” threat to U.S. lives without going into precise detail.

Trump administration officials have remained tight-lipped about the details surrounding the alleged plots, citing the protection of intelligence sources and methods.  

At times, officials have appeared to oscillate between describing the strike as a response to Soleimani’s past destructive behavior and an effort to deter future attacks. 

Soleimani — who commanded Iran’s Quds Force, a designated terrorist organization — has been blamed for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. service members in the Middle East over the years. 

Meanwhile, congressional lawmakers, most of them Democrats, have expressed dissatisfaction with classified briefings by the administration to explain the decision to strike Soleimani.

Pompeo’s remarks came after Trump suggested Thursday that Soleimani was plotting attacks against U.S. embassies while also blaming him for an assault by Iran-backed protesters on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad prior to his death.

“Soleimani was actively planning new attacks and he was looking very seriously at our embassies and not just the embassy in Baghdad,” Trump told a crowd of supporters at a campaign rally in Ohio Thursday evening. “We stopped him and we stopped him quickly and we stopped him cold.”

Earlier Thursday, Trump told reporters that Soleimani was “looking to blow up” the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Pompeo has described the Trump administration’s decision to authorize a strike against Soleimani as a defensive measure aimed at deterring attacks the Iranian general was plotting that posed an “imminent” threat to American interests.

But Pompeo said Thursday night he didn’t know the precise time or place of where those attacks would take place.

“There is no doubt that there were a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qassem Soleimani, and we don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real,” Pompeo told Fox News host Laura Ingraham in an interview Thursday night.

On Friday, Pompeo maintained that his remarks had been consistent.

“I don’t know exactly which minute. We don’t know exactly which day it would have been executed. But it was very clear: Qassem Soleimani himself was plotting a broad, large-scale attack against American interests and those attacks were imminent,” Pompeo told reporters.

Pompeo said Soleimani was plotting attacks that threatened American facilities, including U.S. embassies and military bases, throughout the Middle East.

Asked later about his definition of “imminent,” Pompeo said the plots would have been carried out had the U.S. not authorized the strike on Soleimani, defending Trump for making the “right call.”

“We would have been culpably negligent had we not recommended to the president that he take this action against Soleimani,” Pompeo said. “He made the right call and America is safer as a result of that.”

And pressed on whether the administration described to lawmakers an imminent threat to U.S. embassies, Pompeo said he did but declined to go into detail.

Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, later said on MSNBC that he was not given information about an imminent threat to U.S. embassies during the closed-door briefing as it was described by Pompeo on Friday.

Last week’s strike followed the death of an American contractor in Iraq that the U.S. blamed on Iran.

Iran retaliated following Soleimani’s death by launching missiles at Iraqi bases housing U.S. and coalition forces, which did not result in any American casualties.

Trump declared Wednesday that Iran appeared to be “standing down” in the wake of the missile strikes, announcing that he would impose fresh economic sanctions while backing off further military escalation.

Updated at 12:46 p.m.

Tags Bob Menendez Iran Iraq Laura Ingraham Mike Pompeo

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